Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka testified yesterday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in an oversight hearing on “Voting Matters in Native Communities.”  The hearing offered AFN a second chance in one week to speak to a key Senate committee in support of safeguarding Native voting rights through the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, or S.4, (VRAA), and the Native provisions in the VRAA’s Title III section, known as The Frank Harrison, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and Miguel Trujillo Native American Voting Rights Act of 2021 (NAVRA).

In its testimony, AFN sought to dispel the false narrative that voting rights violations are a thing of the past in Alaska, attributable to previous administrations. The facts, evidence, and judicial decisions say otherwise and point to the role of the current Director of the Division of Elections in those violations. More regions of Alaska are currently designated for federal observers under the Voting Rights Act than in the remainder of the United States.

“We believe that in voting rights there are mutual responsibilities. There’s responsibilities for us as Native leaders to do our part, and there are responsibilities for government,” Kitka stated in her testimony. “Our way of life creates a lot of barriers,” Kitka said. “We live in the largest landmass in the United States.  We have tremendous diversity across our state and very remote and isolated communities.” 

Kitka explained that the problems continue because of the inertia inherent in the system. There is a perceived lack of funding, where elections officials make budget reductions while at the same time they have money in an interest-bearing account that they could use to solve these problems. “The pressures on government to cut corners or to stretch funding further, real human beings make decisions based on those pressures, and often we’re the ones who lose out,” she said.  

AFN testified that Alaska’s election officials have repeatedly shown that they cannot be trusted to exercise their discretion to provide equal registration and voting opportunities to Alaska Natives. The VRAA and NAVRA are needed to provide a failsafe against the discriminatory actions of the Director and other Alaska election officials. In the absence of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 coverage, Alaska Native voters and organizations like AFN that represent them are left with pursuing relief through the federal courts. 

Both the VRAA and NAVRA are needed to address Alaska’s present and ongoing discrimination against Alaska Natives, AFN said. This is not the time for half-measures that will leave Alaska Native voters without the full protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Elections Clause to the United States Constitution, and the broad plenary powers that Congress has to regulate its relations with federally recognized tribes through free and equal access to the political process. The VRAA and NAVRA are complementary provisions that the Senate must pass immediately. Anything short of passage of both the VRAA and NAVRA would reflect a lack of commitment to eradicating, once and for all, the first-generation voting barriers that Alaska Native voters face every day.

“I would like to acknowledge the leadership of AFN’s Vice President and General Counsel Nicole Borromeo on Native voting rights,” Kitka said. “She has made fighting for our rights and improving Alaska’s election system one of her top priorities for many years.”

To read AFN’s written testimony, click HERE

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